Monday, August 31, 2009

Worst Superhero Movie Castings

Big budget movies based on popular comic book superheroes have become all the rage this past decade, with technology and special effects catching up somewhat to the imaginations of writers. But good special effects do not a perfect comic book translation make. There are scripts, there is directing. And there are the actors.

This list isn't going to take issue solely with poor performances by actors. Because the blame for bad movies must be shared. Also to blame for shitty onscreen comic book character portrayals are those who did the casting in the first place. Because let's face it - just picking out someone who's age appropriate or maybe looks a little like the character in question is not enough. Oddly (or sadly) enough, there have even been occasions where these factors didn't even seem to be considered. Sometimes it's appeared as if the casting decisions were made simply by throwing darts at a board. Or possibly by drinking a cocktail of absinthe, Sudafed, grain alcohol and turpentine, taking some codeine dipped in vanilla extract, eating a large pizza with everything on it, puking some of it up, passing out, waking up in said puke hours later, downing a bottle of mouthwash, doing some jumping jacks and then throwing darts at a board. And also the board is on fire and melting.

...but I digress. I've also only considered major roles so Juggernaut, Bane and their ilk are safe...for now. Some movies are also such messes in their casting (among other things - I'm looking at you, X-Men 3) I've decided to only have one character per movie included here.

5. Danny Devito as The Penguin (Batman Returns, 1992)
Well, I guess the cat's out of the bag - I really cannot stand this casting choice. And while I find them entertaining as a whole, I have a very hard time stomaching the Burton Batman films. I always tell myself to watch them as some sort of alternate universe version of Batman. But Devito as the Penguin really tears it for me. And I know I'm going to catch a lot of flak for admitting it but whatever.

About all I can understand about the casting of Devito is that he's short. That's it. His Penguin is no where close to classy and refined, from the voice to the mannerisms. I realize that's just not what they were going for - the idea was to present a more savage and animalistic Penguin, one whose attempt at refinement is only a thin facade. Which makes sense to a certain degree. Any version of the Penguin can pretend to be refined all he wants but the fact is he's a criminal quite used to dealing with extremely dangerous and unsavory types as well as earning his living through dishonesty and violence. But MY Penguin still pulls off the image of refinement quite well. He's dapper and cultivated. It's what creates an interesting paradox. Dressed to the nines and swinging his little cane about, the Penguin rarely actually gets his own hands dirty as he involves himself in all manner of criminal activity.

But Devito's Penguin is viscous and uncouth. He even eats raw fish for Bob Kane's sake. And that grating, snarling voice is about the furthest thing I can imagine from what I've always thought should be a smooth, charming voice that rarely betrays emotion. Burton's vision is of some sort of man with penguin-like qualities that includes the ability to actually communicate and control the actual birds themselves. To that I say waaaugh!

4. George Clooney as Batman (
Batman And Robin, 1997)
Can't blame Burton for this one. While this movie's casting of Arnold Schwatzenegger as villain Mr. Freeze is also woeful beyond description, I have to adhere to my rule of one character per movie and pronounce the decision to give the cape to Clooney to be the bigger blunder. After all, Batman is the main character here and if you get him wrong, it doesn't matter what else you may get right (of course, in the case of Batman And Robin this isn't an issue as every single aspect of the film combines to create a perfect storm of excrement).

But we all know how Batman is supposed to be: moody, withdrawn, troubled, brooding and DARK. But Clooney, who has shown that he can at least play the odd character with edge (see From Dusk Till Dawn) seems to have decided to take the billionaire playboy facade employed by Bruce Wayne to help guard his dark secret and use it to portray the character in every single scene. Batman smirks and showboats even as he's engaged in combat and his dialogue never even comes close to anything serious. (yours to consider - Batman: Hey, Freeze. The heat is on.)

In 1997 Clooney wasn't too old to be playing Batman but if you observe his movements in costume, you'd think he was. I'm sure there must have beeen stuntman standing in the odd time in the Batsuit but perhaps George's ego wouldn't allow for them to do anything cool while they were there. Because there isn't a single instance in the entire movie where Batman performs anything close to acrobatic or athletic (he can't even skate well! and the very fact we're talking about Batman skating should be setting off a cacophony of alarm bells). Instead he just sort of walks from bad guy to bad guy to deliver a clunky kick-punch combo, ala Adam West.

Of course the script is a total disaster and not all the blame can rest with Clooney for his Batman. But the fact remains he just went along with all the cheesy garbage in this mess of a film and never even tried to at least make the lead character rise above the many, many, many other flaws. Hell, I'll bet the whole credit card bit was his fucking idea. The bat-nipples too.

3. Cheesy Effect as Galactus (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, 2007)
This takes the form of bad casting to a whole new level. A new stratosphere. Just because Galactus has often been described as "a force of nature" in the comics doesn't mean filmmakers should take it so literally; I mean, there are plenty of pictures of him - panels where he speaks even. Galactus is a cosmic being but also a rational being and not an animal. And certainly not a weather pattern.

Actually, he's ( "he" not "it") said to be the oldest living being in the Marvel 616 Universe, the only survivor of the universe that preceded it. Writers have done their best to portray him as something almost beyond human comprehension. An ageless cosmic entity that very much resembles concepts we have of a God.

His deal is that he roams the cosmos, forever looking to satisfy an everlasting hunger. It is a hunger that can only be sated by draining the lifeforce of planets populated with some form of life. To see such an amazing being brought to life on screen in a movie would have been something truly significant and cool. So what did the makers of Rise of the Silver Surfer do? They reduce Galactus to the equivalent of a mindless, cosmic vacuum cleaner. They might as well have just had a black hole suddenly appear next to the Earth and had the Surfer seal it up or something.

To present a major Marvel character in such a way is a huge slap in the face to comic book fans. Basically they took the absolute laziest route they could which, completely unsurprisingly, resulted in a movie just as terrible as its prequel. I'd foolishly believed they could perhaps have wiped the slate clean with Rise of the Silver Surfer and instead all they did was wipe their collective asses with the celluloid.

2. Ian McKellen as Magneto (
X-Men Series, 2000, 2003, 2006)
A talented actor whose many performances I admire completely miscast in a major role. With all the disrespect and disregard the makers of the X-Men movies showed for the vast majority of the characters and their respective histories and backstories, I am completely at a loss as to why they were so goddamn keen on making sure Magneto's Holocaust experience was kept intact. Well, maybe not completely. The fact is it's a good backstory and helps explain his righteous anger and pain. As a boy he'd suffered through genocide in the name of an accident of birth and now, decades later, he sees it all about to happen again. But still...

I just can't get past that they'd decided to portray the Master of Magnetism as a feeble old man. In real life, McKellan, born in 1939, is actually too young to have remembered the Nazi concentration camps if he'd been in one. And yet as Magneto he comes across as positively ancient. It's even possible that they could have cast an actor who was age-appropriate for Magneto's backstory and have him still seem powerful and commanding. But it sure as hell doesn't work with McKellen.

Everything about the man is just wrong for Magneto. His accent makes no sense. At 5'11 he's several inches too short. And he just looks weak. Magneto isn't supposed to be as muscular and hulking as many Marvel characters but he's still upright and fit. McKellen presents a stooped, shuffling shell of a man who only enjoys brief moments of vitality and that's when he's using his mutant power. I'm sorry but that's just not good enough.

Never before in my life have I criticized an actor for his sexuality as it has absolutely nothing to do with his ability to perform a role (unless we're talking about Nathan Lane) but I find myself dangerously close to doing just that here with McKellen. He's an openly gay man and in interviews it's not difficult to pick up on. But until Magneto I'd never see him play a character and have said character come off as homosexual. Gandalf was like Gandalf - a good-natured but powerful wizard whom you'd never even associate with having any sexual preference really, it just didn't enter into it. And yet McKellen's Magneto is positively catty. His facial expressions, mannerisms and dialogue are all delivered in such a way that for the first time in any medium, we see Erik Lehnsherr old queen. Every time he spoke to Xavier conversationally (not during one of his big speeches about mutants vs mankind) and addressed him as "Charles" it almost seemed as though he was about to try to steal a kiss for god's sake.

The only way I can make sense of this is to theorize that perhaps McKellen thought in playing the role this way he could help undo some stereotypes or something by having a powerful and intimidating character like Magneto not have to be necessarily positively macho. Whatever his intent, it contributed to one of the very worst things about the entire miserable series. I dream of a day where X-Men isn't absolutely impossible to properly translate to the big screen but that day seems incredibly far off.

1. Topher Grace as Venom (
Spider-Man 3, 2007)
If we haven't already reached the point of the ridiculously obvious, we're definitely there now. I suppose with the casting of Grace as Eddie Brock, the film makers were trying to present us with a character who was in many ways very similar to Peter Parker. Maybe the idea was to show just how close Spider-Man came to fully embracing the symbiote and becoming basically evil by giving us a character that is very much like him who winds up taking that route. But if that is the case then, still - why? The Eddie Brock of the comics is a good character and nothing about him would present a problem for a movie adaptation.

Instead of being similar to Parker, Brock is supposed to present an interesting contrast. While it is true that in the movie, Grace's Brock is at least shown to be something of a sleaze as well as dishonest, they still saw fit to give us someone of roughly the same age as well as height and build. They even made him a free-lance photographer trying to prove himself to the Bugle and earn a staff position. Again - why? Brock is supposed to be a reporter for rival paper. He doesn't even take photos.

I fail to see how an Eddie Brock who's several years older, much bigger and heavier and who works as a reporter for a separate paper, would really have posed such a problem for the makers of Spider-Man 3. Many of these aspects make his transition to Venom a whole lot smoother, really. Brock is supposed to blame his failures on Spider-Man, not Peter Parker. Who's actually in the suit is supposed to make little difference to him when he finds out. But in the movie, we have Brock going to the church to pray for the death of Parker, not Spidey. So for no reason at all, Venom's motivations become muddled.

Once Brock bonds with the symbiote and becomes Venom it just doesn't work. He resembles Carnage a lot more than Venom and with Carnage we knew it was a bonding of serial killer and symbiote so his slighter build didn't detract from anything. But Brock was supposed to be into bodybuilding and this was only enhanced by his transformation. He's an intimidating presence even when he's not Venom. Parker once descried Brock as a "pumped-up lunatic" but here "skinny little bitch" would be infinitely more appropriate. In the movie all we get is Eric from That Seventies Show covered in black stuff. Hardly scary. Instead of a dramatic battle we're almost expecting to see the two antagonists trade witty insults. Spider-Man is known for that but Venom is supposed to be about pure rage. Put all the black on him you want, Topher Grace is no Eddie Brock and he's certainly no Venom.


Shane Patenaude said...

Entertaining list all around. I agree with everything you have to say here, even if I am partial to DeVito's penguin. I know it could be done far better. I hope the current Batman franchise takes a crack at it.

Man I hate the Fantastic Four movies. I just had to say that. They both are terrible terrible movies.

And I sort of expected to see Kevin Spacey on this list for his Lex Luthor.

Bruce Burns said...

Yeah definitely an awesome list. One thing that has annoyed me of late, is some people (half halfheartedly mind you) defending Batman and Robin as an intentionally campy movie that should be compared to the 60's Batman franchise. But even in such an inane comparison, Batman and Robin still comes up looking terrible, and Clooney's Batman is no exception. I'll take Adam West any day. Aside from having genuine camp value (not cringe value) he portrayed Batman as someone who was (in the universe of the show) an intelligent, problem solving detective. As you said, Clooney's Batman is a playboy: air boarding, whipping out credit cards and brimming with smart-ass comments. West is a warped version of Batman. Clooney is simply a dick.

Cole D'Arc said...

shane> while i certainly didn't like Spacey's Luthor I must admit I'm far from an authority on the character and how he should be portrayed.

bruce> well said. ive heard the same lame argument and it just doesn't fly.